Fix Your Own Democracy

Omar Robert Hamilton

Eight sets of T-shirts, socks, underwear: white. Trousers: blue. Sweaters: blue. If you’re going to visit Alaa in prison, don’t wear blue in case the guards mistake you for an inmate. It happens, his mother tells me in all seriousness. Do not wear blue.

Three bottles of juice go in the freezer the night before each visit to keep fresh through the long hours between home and cell, the metal detectors, the waiting room, the transport vehicles in the prison complex, the bench in the sun outside Alaa’s inner prison building. ‘His father was in that one.’ His mother points at the building next to her son’s.

Khaled, Alaa’s son, has his own little backpack on. The biscuits inside will help keep him occupied through the long hours. Khaled is now six years old. Alaa has been in prison for well over half his lifetime. All he knows of his father is this hour, filled with news and instructions and jokes. Alaa always has ten days’ worth of rapid questions: What news from J.’s latest trial session? Where has judge K. been assigned? Did you read Hisham Matar’s book? How’s the new Star Wars film?

The Egyptian regime keeps Alaa in prison because it wants to isolate him. He isn’t in with other political prisoners, but white-collar criminals, embezzlers, corporate fall guys. For news he has state newspapers and radio. But Alaa is un-isolatable. Ahmed Naji, the novelist who was his cellmate for some months, wrote about him when he was released:

Alaa kept a small notebook with a photo of Lenin on the cover. In it, he would record figures concerning the economy published by al-Ahram, like government debt and the state deficit, and other figures pertaining to the financial situation in the country … Based on these official figures from state newspapers we were restricted to in prison, Alaa would come up with his own analyses of the economic crisis. The figures in Alaa’s notebook unsettled the inspectors, who suspected them to be telephone numbers, or perhaps a code for communicating with the outside world. When they asked him about them, Alaa began to explain in detail the meaning of every figure, which left them paralysed and unable to decide what to do. After all, these were numbers published in al-Ahram, the newspaper they allow prisoners to receive and read.

Alaa is two-thirds of the way through a five-year prison sentence for organising a protest he didn’t in fact organise. When he is eventually released, he will have to spend every night for the next five years in a cell in his local police station. And even that will not be the end of his persecution, which will not end until there is a dramatic political change.

For five years, Alaa has been on trial in another case, for ‘insulting the judiciary’ in a tweet in which he accused judges of complicity with the military. A date for sentencing has finally been set: 30 December. It is hard not to expect the worst. Mahienour el-Massry, a prominent human rights lawyer, faces sentencing in a separate case on the same day – a date seemingly selected for minimal media focus.

The ‘insulting the judiciary’ case is a web of vendettas in which Alaa is a co-defendant with 24 national figures, including the former president Mohammed Morsi, three very senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, the political scientist Amr Hamzawy, two other former MPs, one of the country’s most senior judges and a selection of television personalities. The case is so entangled that lawyers can’t agree on what the maximum sentence could be. One of Alaa’s defence team thinks four years; another says there are so many defendants facing such a variety of charges that the judge could simply hand down a mass sentence.

Earlier this year, Alaa wrote an open letter to people wondering what they might do to help him. It has four pieces of advice. Here’s number one:

Fix your own democracy. This has always been my answer to the question ‘how can we help?’ I still believe it is the only possible answer. Not only is where you live, work, vote, pay tax and organise the place where you have more influence, but a setback for human rights in a place where democracy has deep roots is certain to be used as an excuse for even worse violations in societies where rights are more fragile. I trust recent events made it evident that there is much that needs fixing. I look forward to being inspired by how you go about fixing it.